Those familiar with some of the political wranglings and machinations of UK Buddhism will be aware of the UK Network of Buddhist Organisation's infamous Code of Conduct. The Code, which forbids member organizations and their followers from commenting publicly on other, controversial NBO member's misconduct, the signing of which is a compulsory prerequisite to full NBO membership, is discussed elsewhere on these pages.

The Code, the NBO suggest, is a practical reworking of , and therefore justified with reference to, the Five Precepts (Pancha Shila), a set of behavioral principles practiced by lay Buddhists of the Theravadin, 'Hinayana' and Mahayana traditions; as such, any behavior which contradicts their intent has been portrayed as 'un-Buddhist'. This would include, for instance, a follower of any NBO member organization reporting abuse to anyone outside the NBO.

Here, I want to suggest that such ideas show a fundamental  misunderstanding of Buddhist teaching, history and demography and that, in fact, when leaders, their  followers or their organizations behave in ways which directly contradict the Buddha's intent, the law or current moral values (and sometimes all three!),  it is entirely appropriate and in accord with the Buddha's teaching  to speak out and not to maintain a 'noble silence'. In short, as the current Dalai Lama suggested, when Buddhist teachers behave in an inappropriate manner and fail to change their ways when confronted, it is entirely correct not to hesitate  but rather to "name names in newspapers".

The Five Precepts and Their Place in Buddhist Practice

The five precepts are the fundamental moral principles of the Theravadin 'Hinayana' and Mahayana layperson alike; they are a common moral framework for the majority of the world's Buddhists. Nevertheless, while they are common to the different vehicles ( Skt yanas) of Buddhism, their importance is framed differently within the practice matrices of each.

In the Hinayana context, the five represent a code of absolute moral principles by which one abides under all circumstances. Their centrality to the religious practice of that tradition is underlined by the repetition of the first four of the five in two components of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right Speech and Right Action. This repetitive emphasis demonstrates that the five are essential moral components of the Hinayana path.

The Mahayana sees itself as a tradition which incorporates and expands upon the Hinayana rather than one which stands distinct from it. As such, therein the five precepts are seen as a foundation upon which all subsequent sets of Mahayana moral codes are based. This is perhaps most evident in the process of tantric initiation, the tantras being an aspect of some Mahayana tradition's practices, which bring with the  the requirement to maintain a particular set of moral precepts. 

During the preliminary part of a tantric initiation, tantric vows are given on the basis of first having taken vows associated with the practices of the sutra based practices of the Mahayana path, the Bodhisattva vows.  However, demonstrating the fundamental importance of the Hinayana approach, these Bodhisattva vows themselves must be taken on the essential basis of the  initial receipt of Refuge and along with it, the taking of the Five Precepts Thus, the morality of the Mahayana paths of sutra and tantra is founded directly upon the maintenance of the five precepts.

However, whereas the precepts in their Hinayana context are moral absolutes, and must be observed regardless of circumstance, in the Mahayana the precepts are superseded by the moral relativism of the doctrine of upaya or 'skilful means'. This doctrine of skilful means suggests that under certain circumstances,  in particular where love and compassion deem it necessary, it is permissible to perform what are normally considered non-virtuous actions of body and speech. Thus, the Bodhisattva Bhumi of Asanga indicates that a bodhisattva may lie to save others, steal the proceeds of criminal acts and even kill a person about to murder his own parents, so that the perpetrator of the negative act will not experience the karmic consequences associated with their actions.

For beings who practice the Mahayana path, this concept of skilful means is imbued as a moral obligation during the bodhisattva vow ceremony, wherein the practitioner promises to 'break the seven non-virtues of body and speech where love and compassion deem it necessary', the 11th of the 46 branch vows according to the tradition of the Profound View transmitted via the Indian saint Nagarjuna.

While the doctrine of skilful means is an integral part of the Mahayana approach, it is important to note that it has its precedents in the Hinayana Sangiti Sutta in the Digha Nikaya and furthermore, according to Gombrich "the exercise of skill to which it refers....... is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon.’’ It would be wrong therefore to suggest that the concept of upaya is a Mahayana one since its application can be found in both the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions.

Mahayana tantric vows, being a bodhisattva practice, also incorporate the concept of upaya. In particular, the doctrine is manifest in the 10th root tantric vow , which is a promise 'not to show love towards malevolent beings' who are, commentaries explain, individuals who harm the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Of course, this does not mean that we should wish unhappiness and suffering to befall such individuals or forsake the wish to become enlightened for their sake . However to act or even speak lovingly of them constitutes a root tantric downfall. The vow makes it further incumbent upon the holder, while motivated by love and compassion, to stop their destructive behavior, even if it means resorting to forceful methods. 

Arguments Against Upaya

Of course, despite the idea of upaya being clearly locateable in Hinayana scripture, there will be those who argue that the practice is a Mahayana accretion and as such does not represent the true word of the Buddha. Typically, such individuals argue that only the teachings of the Hinayana Theravadins are genuine since they were his actual word.

This however only demonstrates  ignorance of history insofar as the Theravadin Pali Canon was itself only committed to writing in the 1st century BCE at the Fourth Council in Sri Lanka, around four centuries after his death. Moreover, the Councils themselves were held to agree on contentious issues. There was then, a degree of disagreement over the Buddha's intent for the hundreds of years preceding the Fourth Council. The assertion that the Pali Canon is the only true word of the Buddha is therefore not certain and not borne out by history. Rather, it is merely a weapon in the armory of zealots and sectarian bigots.

Amazingly, these same individuals argue that the Mahayana sutras and tantras cannot possibly be the Buddhas teaching because they did not emerge in written form until the first and  third centuries CE respectively. So, while they are quite happy to accept the authenticity of their own scriptures despite their not being recorded until four centuries after Buddha lived, they declare the Mahayana sutras and tantras inauthentic on the basis of their not appearing in written form for a similarly considerable period.

In fact, one very obvious reason the tantras could have remained invisible historically for so long lies in the Sanskrit synonym for tantra, 'Guhya mantra'.  literally 'Secret instrument of thought', the important word here being 'secret'.
Although it might be hard to believe in these days when the shelves of  the alternative therapy section of most bookshops are festooned with  'tantric' sex guides alongside Kelsang Gyatso's 'Guide to Dakini Land' , there was once a time when tantric practice was considered secret,  indeed the efficacy of said practice was believed to relate directly to the  maintenance of secrecy concerning it. 

Is it so hard to accept then, that these teachings were transmitted to the Buddha's disciples in secret and that this secrecy was maintained for the centuries following his death? In Western culture, for most of it's existence, the Catholic Church performed all  rituals and wrote all copies of scripture in Latin, which was understood by almost no one outside the Church. Is it really fanciful to suggest that a similar policy of secrecy to this might have existed in the Buddhist tantric system?

Again, how much more effective would such a policy of secrecy have been if it was based on a system of solely oral transmission, as was the way in the earliest days of Buddhism across the traditions?

In summary, the five precepts, while common to the Hinayana and Mahayana systems of sutra and tantra, each of which is an equally valid Buddhist approach, are not moral absolutes which should not be contradicted under any circumstance. Rather, in the Mahayana traditions of both sutra and tantra, their maintenance must be considered within the context of a consideration of the particular situation in which they are applied and this, in turn, is an idea which can be clearly located in Hinayana, Theravadin Buddhist scripture.

Buddhist Demography

The innappropriateness of the NBO's application of inflexible rules supposedly derived from the five precepts is further apparent when one considers Buddhist demographics, both worldwide and nationally.

According to a 2004 US State Department report, there are somewhere between 350 and 500 million Buddhists worldwide; around 35% of these are Theravadin, 'Hinayana' Buddhists, while Mahayana followers of sutra and tantra systems compose the remaining 65%.

This demograph is further reflected in the UK Buddhist 'scene' which, though having its roots in the Theravada, is now dominated by groups primarily of Mahayana origin and their contemporary derivatives.In short, in the UK and Western Buddhist family, the Mahayana tradition is by far the bigger brother.

Perception of this reality has been somewhat distorted in the UK due to several, related factors: initial British empirical encounters with the East, an early academic tendency for Western academics to focus on the Theravada, and the UK educational system, which focuses primarily on the practices of the same, while subsequently portraying Mahayana Buddhism as a later, somewhat eccentric accretion.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the majority of Buddhists in the World, as well as those in the UK and the West, are followers of the  Mahayana traditions, traditions which, while considering the five precepts to be of fundamental importance to their religious practice, also consider it appropriate to relax their adherence where wisdom  tells them  that love and compassion render it appropriate.

So if that's how the majority of the World's Buddhists behave, why does the NBO restrict its members' right to do so? Doesnt it look suspiciously like their leaders are distorting Buddhist principles   to protect their own controversial organisations from criticism and bad publicity? Or are they afraid about damage to Buddhism's 'reputation'? Looks like Catholic-style cover ups are the way forward after all.

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